It’s time to toast one of our own. Eric Branco, known round here simply as “Branco,” has his directorial debut showing on Saturday at the Coney Island Film Festival. If you are around, show some love and check it out.
Stay Cold, Stay Hungry is Branco’s first feature film. A native of New York City, he went to the Bronx High School of Science and the School of Visual Arts before beginning his career as a cinematographer. He’s lensed a host of feature films, shorts, and documentaries, and his work has screened at festivals around the world, including Cannes, Sundance, TriBeCa, and SXSW.
I had a chance to catch up with him recently and rap about his movie.
Bronx Banter: How did this project start for you?
Eric Branco: The idea for this film actually came to me ten years ago. I was enrolled in the School of Visual Arts at the time, but I wasn’t quite happy there. I came up with the master plan to drop out and make this movie. I wrote it on and off for the next few years, and once I had a script I was happy with, I started looking for financing. This was right around the time of the housing collapse, though, and no one was interested in funding this tiny indie film. I had the choice to shelve the project until I could find money, or just pull myself up by the bootstraps and make the movie on my own. I chose the latter.
BB: How did you cast it and what challenges did you face having to shoot over such a long period of time.
EB: I’ve known both of the leads for a long time. Johnny Marra is an old friend that I met in high school, and we became closer after graduation. We were both in art school, and so we’d constantly be bouncing ideas off each other and talking about our various projects. When I told him about this movie, he reacted so strongly to the concept. He had such an intense knowledge of the character that I’d show him scenes as I was writing and ask his opinion. It became clear over time that I wasn’t going to find anyone who knew the character as well as John, and I asked him to play the part of Harley. Stephen Hill was a bit of a different story. I was familiar with his work through an acting studio I used to work for, and just submitted the script to him and asked if he’d be interested doing it. The summer after I left college, I shot audition tapes for a well known acting coach. Very often actors will be on a project in New York and need to read for parts in LA. When that happens, they put themselves on camera and overnight it to the casting director. Steve was a star pupil of this acting coach, and she often had him read the other parts in these videos. He stuck with me, and years later I thought of him for Manny.
BB: It reminds me of the movies Orson Welles shot in Europe over months and years.
EB: Shooting over a long period of time actually a blessing. Since we were self funded, we didn’t have anyone to answer to but ourselves. There was no one barking at us about not being on schedule, and so we really took our time with this film, and made sure we had it right. A few times, if we felt a scene wasn’t working, we’d just come back to it another day. We had complete creative freedom, which is probably the only time we’ll have that luxury for the rest of our careers! We shot for about four months over the course of two years, and we really got to know these characters. As a result, the characters changed over time just like real people would. What made sense at the beginning of the shoot, very often didn’t ring true after shooting for over a year, and we did a fair amount of rewriting throughout the process. Steve’s character, Manny, took on a much larger role in the film, and we wrote new scenes so we could really get to know him. There’s one scene in particular, where Manny has a conversation with a pillow, which I think is one of the strongest moments in the film. That was Steve’s idea. I wrote it up, and we shot it later that week.
BB: The time you were afforded sounds like an advantage. Did you ever have to balance that with a feeling of impatience to get it complete?
EB: I was never impatient waiting for these pieces to fall into place, though. I lived a good amount of life since I set out to shoot this movie. Between wrapping this movie and premiering it, I’ve gotten married, had a baby, and watched my career as a cinematographer grow exponentially. There hasn’t been much down time, and so thankfully I was never sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting to finish this movie.
BB: How did you maintain continuity working here and there over so much time?
EB: I really have Steve and John to thank for helping me maintain continuity. They both fell back into their parts so easily that I didn’t need to worry about losing the big picture. In terms of shooting, I had an internal style guide for what the movie should look like and I stuck to that pretty rigidly. Whenever I shoot a film I tend to box myself in by creating rules for myself, and that sensibility carried through to shooting my own film. It was very helpful in maintaining a visual continuity through the entire process.
BB: The look is so sharp but that’s not a surprise because you are a cameraman and photographer. But what was it like for you to direct actors?
EB: Actually, directing is and has always been my first love. Working with actors is my comfort zone. I didn’t originally intend to become a cinematographer. When I was younger and would make movies with my friends, there wasn’t anyone to hold the camera. I kind of picked up the baton and ran with it. When I got to film school, I already had a ton of experience shooting and so I was often asked to photograph other students’ films, and really fell in love with the camera. It snowballed from there, and now it’s how I make my living.
BB: Did you rehearse?
EB: We rehearsed extensively. We had very structured rehearsals before we started shooting, where we really tore through the script and got very specific. I filmed those rehearsals and often referred to them while we were shooting to try and maintain a constant emotional tone through the film. Once we began shooting, we stopped rehearsing, but would have long conversations about the scenes that were coming up in the schedule. After we’d wrap, we’d often talk for another two hours about the next day’s scenes and really get to the emotional core of what the scene was about.
BB: Did you cut the movie yourself? With all that footage and with you being so close emotionally to the project from day one how did you have the distance required to make tough decisions?
EB: I had a great editor, Adam Bertocci, who cut the movie as we shot. After wrapping each day, I’d drop the footage off to him and he’d usually have something to watch the next day. On our breaks between shooting, we’d take the time to do as polished a cut as possible, and really try and objectively examine what wasn’t moving the story forward. From there we’d either cut the scene, or I’d rewrite it and shoot it again. Adam was ruthless in his cuts, which also prevented me from getting too sentimental about the material.
BB: How much of the film was formed in the editing room?
EB: There’s probably another movie’s worth of footage that’s sitting on the cutting room floor! We shot and shot, cut scenes, rewrote scenes, and shot some more. The biggest difference between the first draft of the script and the final product is the film’s point of view. The script was very much written from Harley’s perspective, and it wasn’t until we started shooting that we realized we needed to see just as much of Manny for the movie to have the emotional resonance it needed. We ended up cutting some scenes of Harley that were too expositional, and rewriting them to be a little more ambiguous. At the same time, we wrote new scenes for Manny so we could show a little more of his private life and make the audience aware of things that the other characters were not.
BB: When Adam showed you a cut version of a scene did that help you know what you might have needed to go back and reshoot?
EB: Our reshoots were all about structure. We didn’t reshoot because things just didn’t come out well, but rather because things needed to connect to other scenes which may not have been in the original script. We ended up cutting a recurring character, and then had to reshoot a bunch of scenes that she was in. Her arc and influence on Harley ended up being revealed in other ways, and so she became redundant as far as the entire story went. We reworked several scenes that she had been in and shot new versions.
BB: What movies did you look at in preparation for making this?
EB: I have a laundry list of movies we watched! Probably the biggest influence on the film was Panic in Needle Park. There’s something so powerful to me about the relationship between Al Pacino and Kitty Winn in that film that I felt really mirrored the relationship between Harley and Manny in SCSH. Adam Holender’s photography was also a huge influence. There’s nothing wasted in that movie. The photography is incredibly lean and almost utilitarian, but beautiful and nuanced at the same time. I watched it religiously while shooting. Other films that were in the rotation were 25th Hour, Serpico, The Warriors, Mean Streets, Permanent Vacation, Naked, Kids, and Lost in Translation.
BB: Did you ever find yourself getting stuck, waiting and working other jobs, to get back to this?
EB: I can say without a doubt that making this movie was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It took everything I had in me to finish it. We would shoot and run my bank account down, I was often stuck just waiting until I had enough money to tackle the movie again. There was a good amount if post audio work needed, and a lot of dialogue had to be rerecorded. Several times, I worked deals with people where I’d shoot for them in exchange for a sound booth they had access to. Situations like that really took the big chunk of time to complete, and I hit dead ends at every step of the way that really sucked away all the enthusiasm I had for the project. By the end, it was a matter of finishing the movie to prove that I could. What began as optimism turned into a freight-train determination to see this thing through.
BB: Did the story you set out to tell differ from the story that exists in the finished movie?
EB: I set out wanting to make a film about the safety net afforded to people with money. That’s a story I felt strongly about telling, and so that was never in danger of being lost or diluted. What ended up changing, though, was the amount of layers within that story. What began as a relatively straightforward narrative blossomed into something more thanks to the amazing performances by the actors. This is the kind of movie that really gets people talking and debating the issues presented in the film, and as a storyteller nothing could be more rewarding.
BB: So, labor of love. Now that it is finished how do you feel?
EB: I feel good, man. I’m glad that I have something that I’m proud of and that the people involved are proud of too. I’ve already moved on to the next project, which is a down-and-out story about an ex-boxer trying to right his past sins. SCSH is hopefully just the first entry in what will be a lengthy catalogue of films. I just want this film to reach as many eyes as possible. For me it’s about exposure more than it is about making a profit. Not only for myself, but for the actors. Nothing would be more rewarding than to look back in a few years and be able to say “X happened because they saw you in SCSH“. That’s what I’m gunning for.